It is a beautiful morning on the southern tip of Greenland; the sun is high in a cloudless sky, but there is a tang of cold in the air. A crowd of Spanish tourists in red parkas has gathered at the small jetty in Narsaq, to watch boatmen who have just returned from hunting a minke whale in the open sea.
From the shoreline, the Spaniards watch the men below busy themselves, slicing the whale meat into slippery rectangular chunks. They work swiftly, as if cleaning up the scene of an emergency, deferring to one young man in orange overalls.
As word spreads that a catch has landed, local people arrive with carrier bags and choose from the cuts laid out on the bloodstained floor of the little boats bobbing in the water. The bags are slung on handheld scales; today, whale meat costs 80 Danish kroner a kilo, about £9. A woman pushes a wheelbarrow down the jetty, loaded with what looks like a ribcage.
The whale hunter is a symbolic figure in Greenland but the flurry the Spaniards are observing is humdrum, devoid of ceremony. Sebu Kaspersen, the hunter in orange overalls, explains that there was a calm sea and they could see a lot of whales; they shot one with a rifle and then fired a harpoon to finish it off. It is, he says, the second minke whale he has killed this year, the limit of his quota. His living largely comes from fishing halibut, and hunting seals for their skin; mostly, he works alone, without a crew.
Soon the Spaniards get bored and put away their cameras. Their Argentine guide, fresh from Patagonia, gets them into their kayaks for a day’s paddling in the fjord, giving instructions on how to avoid colliding with the icebergs glimmering in the sun, lest a dangerous shard come crashing down. In the evening, when they return, they will probably have dinner at Hotel Narsaq, the only hotel in this town of 1,500 people, sharing the restaurant with four Americans from New Jersey, two fathers and their sons who have come to Greenland by private plane to shoot musk ox, and who are loud in their approval of President Trump.
When the whale meat has been sold, the town settles back into a pleasant torpor. The paved road through the green, yellow, red and ochre wooden houses is mostly empty; a zigzag of smoke rises from a chimney against a sky streaked with contrails. Women and men carry shopping and push prams up the hill toward the hotel. Occasionally, the tranquillity is broken by a Volvo tractor roaring jerkily along. In the afternoon, teenagers gather on a hill, while men and women sit drinking on benches. In the square near the supermarket, two teenagers are selling hotdogs and chips from a van parked in front of a little police station.
Not far away, on the edge of town, the shadows lengthen on the dusty football pitch that sits beneath the mountains overlooking Narsaq. From here, you can look straight up the glacial valley to the Kvanefjeld plateau six kilometres away. In the past few years, the townspeople have become used to the helicopter taking off and landing near the football pitch, ferrying drill rigs and other supplies; there, men are working hard to find the mineral riches buried in Greenland’s mountains.
When he visited Narsaq in July 1957, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr was probably the most famous scientist in the world. A Nobel prize winner, he had worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
But by the mid-1950s, he was a proselytiser for the peaceful use of atomic energy. There is a photograph of Bohr accepting honorary citizenship of Narsaq, bending over a lectern set up on a patch of grass, speaking into a microphone. Behind him are officials from Denmark, which had run Greenland as a colony since the 18th century; at the edge of a crowd gathered some distance away, three Inuit children watch him with indifference. In the weeks before Bohr arrived that summer, Danish geologists had taken samples from Kvanefjeld containing promising levels of uranium. His dream was that Greenland’s uranium could support a nuclear power programme in Denmark.
Sixty years later, the dream is that it will provide the key to Greenland’s independence. Since 2009, the island has been an “autonomous administrative division” within Denmark, giving its 56,000 inhabitants control over local resources. The idea of full independence within a generation or two is the dominant theme of local politics – even if the price of breaking free would be an annual Danish subsidy worth some £7,500 a head.
There are few options when it comes to replacing that money: fishing already accounts for more than 90% of Greenland’s exports. But in the last decade, mining has emerged as the means to industrialise Greenland, creating a financial base for independence. Government delegations have toured Australia and Canada, armed with geological surveys, aiming to convince the world’s leading mining communities that Greenland is a rich source of minerals – potentially the 21st century’s new frontier.
As interest has grown – in 2013, the government granted four times the number of exploration licences approved in 2003 – so has the pressure to repeal a 1988 ban on uranium mining: this prevented the extraction of uranium, as well as any minerals that might have uranium as a byproduct. In 2013, after a debate that divided the country, Greenland’s parliament voted narrowly to repeal the ban.
Uranium has made Kvanefjeld the most controversial project, and the focus of debate
Kvanefjeld, near Narsaq, is one of many potential mines. Last month, an Australian company was given the green light to begin construction of a zinc and lead mine on the northern coast; there are currently 56 active licences to explore mining for gold, rubies, diamonds, nickel, copper and other minerals elsewhere.
But uranium has made Kvanefjeld the most controversial project, and the focus of a debate about whether this is the economic path that Greenland should pursue. An Australian-owned company, Greenland Minerals and Energy, has spent nearly £60m developing a plan for an open pit mine here. It was due to submit an environmental impact assessment by the end of 2016, but the deadline has been extended.
Last September, a Chinese company took a 12.5% stake in GME, with an option to increase that to 60%. On the one hand, this suggests strong faith that the project will go ahead; on the other, the deal is now under investigation by Greenland’s government, concerned that they may eventually be dealing with a Chinese mining company, not an Australian one.
In a move that sounds counterintuitive, GME is promoting its mine as a contribution to the new global green economy. According to the company, 80% of the commercial deposits in Kvanefjeld are rare earth minerals, commonly used in wind turbines, hybrid cars and lasers; uranium accounts for only 10%. “The market for rare earth minerals is deciding this,” says operations manager Ib Laursen. “Everybody is looking for them. Instead of Greenland being a passive receiver of global warming from the western world, it could contribute to green technology.”
It is a clever pitch. Greenland’s ice sheet has become the benchmark measurement for the march of global warming; research published in September showed that ice loss is accelerating more rapidly than previously feared. Greenland is also the emblematic victim of climate change: Inuit hunters and fishermen are called on in international conferences, to describe how their traditional lifestyles are being destroyed by warming seas.